Undercover: A Secret History of the World: I (12/13/79)

All of you know the Doom Story, handed down. I heard it from my grandmother, who never told a lie in her life, and she heard it from her grandmother. How, just after this world began, the tall forefathers, white as the snow, knew a magic to build all kind of great things. And how the shadow people came from another place. So black that nobody ever saw their faces. Then the fearsome fighting when the shadows tried to keep the sun from rising and make it always night.

“You know the story as well as I do—how all the forefather things were ruined even though the shadows died. Then the long sickness and starving time when just a few of the forefather children lived in the woods. That’s the old story.”

So says a woman in Robie Macauley‘s new novel, A Secret History of Time to Come (Knopf, 303 pp., $995). The woman is offering an after-the-flood myth of origins, and like most myths of origins, this one has its core of historical truth: what she is describing, perhaps 200 years after the fact, is a hill-scale race war that broke out in the United States near the end of the twentieth century. Before the blacks were exterminated, the struggle paralyzed the country and disrupted the international balance of power, leading the Soviet Union to launch an attack on China, which…

And there the more or less contemporary part of the novel, entries from the journal of a black
revolutionary that Macauley scatters through his first seventy pages, ends. But here is another
version of the myth:

“…the lame man, tale teller, by the fireplace had spun the long-told fancy about how two brother peoples in the beginning of time were forefather men. How the white ones said it was against nature to be black and the black ones said the same about the white and how this was the beginning of the war that lasted fifty summers and winters and ruined everything on earth. And how, finally, the last of the black kind had been killed and buried and the white ones left went to sleep and then, waking up the next morning, had forgotten all they had ever known, and so had wandered off into the forest to starve.”

The first and best half of Macauley’s book is an attempt to imagine what it might mean to live in a world where such a “fancy” takes one to the very limit of knowledge—or past it. In Macauley’s secret history, the United States is a wilderness: there are scattered settlements, recalling the backward frontier settlements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; some folks can read and write, others have regressed almost beyond speech. History has shrunk to “once upon a time,” and the stories that remain are few and short. Artifacts—ruined buildings, roads, bizarre technical relics and random books treated as icons (the treasured shelf of one settlement: Home Radio Repair, Lawrence Welk: the Man and His Music, Ben-Hur, Practical Accounting, Learn to Invest Wisely, Shorthand Made Easy: the Gregg System, Caring for Your Parakeet, The Songs of Stephen Foster)—survive, but the connections between them have faded away. As in Stephen Vincent Benet’s high-school-anthology classic “By the Waters of Babylon,” the towers of the old cities still stand, ominous, tempting and meaningless. The legacy of the past is a blank sense of dread, and Macauley’s hero, a questing man named Kinkaid, has words for it: “… the idea of a great sound that had ceased one instant before he could hear it.”secretWith such a premise, the potential for corny fantasy and easy moralizing is enormous, but Macauley slowly fills in his blasted landscape, giving the reader just enough information to allow him or her to understand what his characters are talking about when they try to make sense of their strange inheritance. A Secret History of Time to Come begins to read as if secrets are actually being disclosed, page by page; along with a sense of horror, a sense of wonder is passed on, and the book quietly develops into fiction as rich and suggestive as any I have read in a long time. Again and again Macauley leads a reader to spin off into his or her own thoughts, which add credibility to the tale: thoughts of how the great cultures of the Cro-Magnons vanished from history for 15,000 years; of how the jungle ate the Mayan temples; thoughts that if history has a will, it is perhaps not a will to accumulate, to carry us forward, but to receive and leave us stranded. One begins to feel the weight of implication in Macauley’s choice of words: the lines, “the white ones left went to sleep and then, waking up the next morning, had forgotten all they had ever known,” are so frightening that the novel almost disappears into them: stops right there.

The book falls apart in its last hundred pages. If, up to this point, the plot has been little more than a narrative foundation for a complex meditation on time and paradox (the idea of progress has vanished into a black hole of its own making; the past is a future that will not be reached), the plot now takes over and turns the novel into a standard nineteenth-century adventure story. Kinkaid, who has moved through the pages trying to focus the puzzle of his existence, trying to think it through, turns into a jerry-built Natty Bumpo.

The whole feeling of careful, even dangerous, intellectual engagement Macauley has brought to the book—his rendering of a primitive settlement in which anyone who can think is shot; his depiction of a confused teacher pressing broken bits of knowledge on eager but bewildered students—simply dissolves. It’s as if Macauley didn’t know where to go with his idea, or didn’t trust it.

What happens? Well, out of the south come evil raiders—they wear black hats and eye patches—who kidnap northern settlers and herd them down to what was once Memphis, where they’re made to work as slaves. There is a fair young maiden…

I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out if all of this could possibly have some meaning, but finally I gave up. It’s not that Macauley is incapable of putting his characters through their paces; it’s just that the exercise is so pointless. From a mystery you’ve never encountered, you go to a shoot-out you’ve seen a hundred times before.

For all that, the book has not left my mind in the month since I read it; the novel is a failure, and still more worthy of your time than the pomposities of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, the fraudulent outrage of Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold, or even the perfectly and narrowly drawn dilemmas of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer. Halfway through A Secret History, Macauley has made his version of the time to come utterly believable, and yet still out of our reach like a dream that will not admit that a dream is what it is.

In The Mythic Image, Joseph Campbell quotes a line of tribal wisdom from a Kalahari bushman: “There is a dream dreaming us.” As we confront Macauley’s future, we think back to Macauley’s past, which is our present, and the Kalahari’s words trace a circle around our attempts to see what Macauley has done. For, to Macauley’s people, those of us who live now would be figures of myth—not real, figments of a dream, just as Macauley’s people are figments of our own dreams. The success of his book can be measured by the degree to which it robs our world of its orderly claim on the future, just as the people of the Doom Story measure their fate by the degree to which our world robbed theirs of its past

Rolling Stone, December 13, 1979

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